Trust in government in sharp decline, survey shows

By David Donaldson

Wednesday February 22, 2017

100821: Polling Day Imagery, Adelaide.

It’s clear that trust in government has been falling across developed countries for a while.

Despite the recent comeback by One Nation, the malaise that has reshaped politics overseas has not yet had the same impact in Australia. But new data suggests Australia might not be immune to the fundamental distrust that’s eating away at democratic institutions in other countries.

Adding to the evidence is the Edelman trust barometer 2017, a global survey of people across 28 countries, which reveals the largest ever global drop in trust across the four key institutions of government, business, media and NGOs.

Australia experienced the second-largest drop of all countries for trust in government, falling eight percentage points over the past year to 37%, placing it around the same mark as the United Kingdom — and ten points lower than the United States. Australians’ trust in government sat at 47% in 2012.

The survey shows only 11% of Australians think the system is working, reporting a sense of injustice, lack of hope, lack of confidence and a desire for change. The majority of respondents in Australia (59%) believe the system is failing.

Some of the concerns that animated last year’s American election and Brexit vote are evident in the results. 56% of Australians report a belief that globalisation is taking us in the wrong direction. More than half of Australians are also concerned about eroding social values, immigration, corruption, and pace of innovation.

Australia’s level of trust in government places it around the middle of the pack of surveyed countries. Source: Edelman Trust Barometer 2017.

Trust also declined in the three other key institutions Edelman measures: business, media and NGOs. Trust in media in Australia is at an all-time low — as it is in many of the countries surveyed — falling 10 points in one year to 32%.

As might be expected, there is also something of a disconnect between the views of informed, high socio-economic individuals and the broader population. Neither are very positive, but average trust in institutions for members of the “informed public” in Australia sits at 54%, compared to 40% for the broader public.

“The implications of the global trust crisis are deep and wide-ranging,” said Steve Spurr, CEO of Edelman Australia.

“Already evident across the globe is a noticeable shift towards protectionism and policies which favour the domestic and distance the global — addressing clear concerns coming from the population. The top three concerns are globalisation (71%), eroding social values (62%) and immigration (60%).

The decreasing trust in institutions is widespread. Australians’ trust in NGOs declined five points to 52%. Trust in business declined four points to 48%. Edelman considers aggregate scores of 60 and above to demonstrate “trust” in an institution, while below 50 represents “distrust”.

Expectations of business remain high, with the general population identifying the importance of attributes for building trust in business as treating employees well (64%), paying its fair share of taxes (63%), and having ethical business practices (62%).

The survey found that 77% of Australians agree a company can take specific actions that “both increase profits and improve the economic and social conditions in the community where it operates”.

“Business is at a critical juncture where it has the opportunity to rebuild trust but can only do so by responding to the concerns and fears of Australians and accepting the need to do things differently,” Spurr added.

“An overwhelming 63% of Australians want businesses to pay their fair share of taxes, they want them to have ethical business practices and to treat their employees well. It’s time for companies to do more. Business leaders must stand up for issues that matter to society.”

Corruption perception worsens too

Australia has fallen on Transparency International’s annual corruption perceptions index recent years as well. That survey found that on a scale of 0 (highly corrupt) to 100 (very clean), Australia’s score fell from 85 to 79 between 2012 and 2016. When compared to other countries, it is still ranked high, as the 13th cleanest country in the world. New Zealand, on the other hand, which is ranked equal first, has barely moved from a score of 90 over the past five years.

The 2017 Edelman trust barometer is the firm’s 17th annual trust and credibility survey. The survey consisted of 25-minute online interviews with 33,000 respondents in October and November 2016. Respondents consisted of 1,150 members of the general population per country, as well as 500 “informed public” respondents in the US and China, and 200 informed public respondents in all other countries. “Informed publics” consist of people ages 25-64, university educated, household income in the top quartile for their age in their country, read or watch business/news media at least several times a week and follow public policy issues in the news at least several times a week. Scores relating to individual institutions are based on a nine-point scale where one means you “do not trust them at all” and nine means you “trust them a great deal”.

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